It’s odd that Tom Hanks, widely seen as one of the nicest guys in America, didn’t grow up a Mister Rogers fan, and apparently, preferred the madcap stylings of Rocky and Bullwinkle to the cardigan-clad neighbor.
How, then, did Hanks decide to play Rogers in the upcoming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? He saw one clip from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood later in life that made him a fan: A conversation between Mr. Rogers and Jeff Erlanger, a ten-year-old boy with quadriplegia.
When he was five, Erlanger was scheduled to have surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord. His sister wrote to Mister Rogers, and when he was slated to travel to Milwaukee the TV host stopped by their house in Madison, Wisconsin to have dinner. A few years later, Rogers invited Erlanger to appear on his show. It’s this 1981 appearance that Hanks saw.
“Fred is just so wonderfully gentle and present [with] someone who normally would make [most people] feel uncomfortable. What do you say to somebody who will spend their life in a wheelchair?” Hanks said in an appearance at the Toronto Film Festival, adding that he “bawled” his eyes out” when he saw the clip.
The innocent curiosity and emotional honesty of the clip are vintage Rogers, and it’s not at all surprising that he and his guest stayed in touch over the years. Erlanger introduced Rogers at his 1999 induction into the TV Academy Hall of Fame, and he spoke at his friend’s funeral in 2003.
Erlanger passed away in 2007, but 12 years later, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, along with a lifetime of advocacy and activism, is now part of his legacy. He was responsible, after all, for landing the film its star.